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The Cost of Being Different

For many still nights, I’d lay wide-eyed staring at imaginary ceiling stars, dreaming of Polynesian waves again. Unlike many new friends in America, my thoughts were on things far away, much too distant than what elementary phrases could express. Instead of getting mad at the boy with sweaty hands and that girl with the flinging recess ribbons, I would rage over a sense of missing lessons back home. I would think of grandparents getting old without me, my cousins hanging out, eating mangoes. Or simple dances sweeping in warm wind without my learning. Among the worst illusions would be of Grandma teaching another young girl with long black, curly hair how to weave with laufala, making beautiful fine mats. It was an ever-present sense of being without. If I wasn't careful, it could turn bitter and angry.

It grew worse as I grew older: the feeling of not belonging, of being different. I could feel my tongue become strange as familiar words floated across the room and out the door. The jokes came slow. My mind slowly changed, too, becoming distant from what I then perceived as “Samoaness.” Air conditioning became a second skin that followed me everywhere, feeling misplaced if the humming sound was absent from the room. I used to feel cold with a bit of recycled air dust. Now I’m hot without it. This was made more complex by the avid cultural teachings of my parents. They went far and above what one could ask in training me about fa’aaloalo, “don’t forget the sasa under the cup for Tamā.” This displacement, then, was not a result of prideless meanderings, but of intentional betterment that I will forever be grateful for.

Alas, after years abroad, I have come home “home”. Waking up to the cooing lupe we’d often sing of. My eyes steadily close to the rhythm of majestic waves. I am home, and I am, even still, different.

Not naïve enough to expect a smooth transition, my many immigrant friends and I know better. You leave home and grow up away, there’s always a tinge of seasoning that tastes like mom’s cooking yet are from different hands. I was keenly aware of the natural separation that comes with seeing other lands; I just didn’t see this. Like the memories I missed, I envisioned a return with a mindset I kept clean throughout adolescence. With head bowed and lips closed, following every instruction pointed towards me like so many young Polynesians are trained to do. I delighted in the idea of being that taupou, forever smiling in her ie with broom and niece in hand, or some other thing that I've forgotten about. I wanted to be that. But I didn’t see this different engraved in my skin like the sun it’s seen from other hemispheres. I didn’t include my growing up in the calculation; I knew that to return how I planned, there would have to be a forgetting of what I’ve already learned. After months of trying to forget what the lives of others from elsewhere have taught me, my growth outgrew my plan and I am better for it.

I can’t and I simply won’t, be the same. This, that I did not foresee, already has been, and it smells of deep southern soul cooking, it feels like cherry blossoms on the wind, and stings like arctic chill on your eyelashes. It is the growing into self-confidence hewned by grace alone. This is the teaching of elders from near speaking of things from afar.The cost of being different is the consistent weighing of self-preservation and communal living. The constant process of considering the other, and considering one’s self. This different is not shameful. This different is not regretful. This different is as unique as you are.

This different, then, is sameness with no shortage of honesty.

Just by being honest, we can’t and simply won’t, be the same. This propels being knitted and known by Divinity into a deeper level of wonder that each lock of hair cannot comprehend. A mystery it is to be favored while there is no such favoritism. Astoundingly, in that difference, we may marvel the same.

The teacher next door is showing me how to weave. We call her Mama. Her teacher? My Grandma.

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